Phillipian Commentary: Harsh Realities

Editor’s Note: This article was originally written on March 19, 2020, before the decision to hold the entirety of Spring Term online.

Some time ago, after the administration extended spring break by a week, announced online classes, and delayed the start of Spring Term, I travelled back home to Beijing, China. Making the decision to go home was a difficult decision to make, as China is still a Level-3 travel restriction country, meaning that I might be denied re-entry to the U.S. I believe this time of crisis brings complex emotions for many, and I’m glad to be able to share some thoughts.

As I talked with my Andover friends about the novelty and uncertainty of these plans, I felt a certain déjà vu. Just a month ago, my friends back home in Beijing were navigating this exact same reality, including online classes and mandatory quarantine at home. I couldn’t help but think about the stark contrast between the level of precaution that Chinese nationals exhibit and the dismissiveness that many Americans had up until a few days ago. COVID-19 affects different countries in dramatically different ways because moments like these expose the fundamental workings of these societies. The virus has brought healthcare inequality in the U.S. into the spotlight, just like it revealed the dangers of Chinese governmental social control in the form of censorship.

Moreover, in the presence of such a big fear factor, harsh realities surface that enhance lines of “us vs. them.” In the U.S., the virus has been dubbed the “Chinese Virus” and “Kung Flu,” both of which add to the discrimination that Asian-American communities have already been subject to since the first cases of COVID-19. This racialization of the virus has made many Asian Americans fearful when choosing to wear masks to prevent contamination, a good move misinterpreted as only appropriate for sickness. Sadly, with travel bans, visa suspensions and the U.S. stock market taking a plunge for the fourth time in the past ten days, borders seem to be especially present. China recently engaged in a stand-off with the U.S. as both nations expel resident journalists from the other. This is far from the first time that tension has come between the two countries, but it nevertheless induces anxiety over potentially escalated responses.

In terms of COVID-19, however, both countries are still on the battlefield. The U.S. is coming to terms with the virus and attempting to “flatten the curve” with social distancing. China is still recovering from the peak of its outbreak at the end of January, and people are no less wary. Many Chinese parents made extensive plane ride guidelines for kids traveling home in response to the influx of Chinese international students, both high school and college, returning to China. In addition to the ground staff at the airport, everyone who helped deliver overseas passengers from the plane to the quarantine spot—save for the bus driver—was dressed in protective suits, protective goggles, and masks. In its latest policy, the city of Beijing has mandated quarantine for travelers entering China from any other country after March 16. Passengers have a choice of home quarantine instead of hotel quarantine only if the medical staff deems it a safe choice for the community.

My long journey home was surreal because it was so out of the ordinary to wear a mask, to use hand sanitizer like crazy, and having to stay in a hotel even though home was only ten minutes away. It also felt like I was transferred from one reality—a Boston Express bus headed to Logan Airport, where no one wore a mask—to another one, filled with protective suits, disinfectant spray, and body temperature checks. What really caught me by surprise until one of the staff—whom I’ve taken to calling “Michelin men” because of the sheer resemblance—offered me cup noodles during our long, freezing wait for a bus to the quarantine spot. Amid this chaotic, scarily clinical reality, the simplest gesture of kindness and care from a stranger felt out of the blue. It took me a minute to savor both the peculiarity and warmth of the moment before happily enjoying the noodles, which they stash specifically for cold, hungry people like me.

For most people in the U.S., COVID-19 went from a distant nuisance to a very real concern that barged into everyone’s plans. As a member of the Class of 2020, I spent the first few days of spring break feeling sad about everything I looked forward to Spring Term, including lawning in good weather, last moments with friends, and Commencement events that look like fairytale endings. As someone who has been familiar with COVID-19 and its impacts in China since January, I know that it is a dire issue, one of life and death for some patients. I would hate to see overflowing hospitals, overworked medical staff, and wartime casualties in yet another country that failed to curb the spread of the virus. I understand the pain of Senior Year being abruptly cut short, and the frustration of not being able to see the people you know and love at school, but petitioning for school to open is hardly helpful.

I’ve been very grateful that I have everything that I need, and it is a good idea to stay home and reduce the spread the best we can. There are definitely things to do, people to connect with, and ways to help others in your local community, and I encourage you to seek them out. Being home quarantined means different things for different people, so it is critical to take good care of yourself along with caring for others. Sometimes I think it’s ironic that I end texts and emails with “hopefully see you soon” when I know I won’t probably be able to re-enter the U.S. for a couple of months, until the CDC revokes the travel ban, but it is important to have hope. Here’s to hoping everything will be okay soon, even if we won’t be finding our way back to school.